Stubbs’ Green Monkey (c.1774-5)

George Stubbs was an animal painter par excellence and, as a child of the Enlightenment and a draughtsman devoted to the study of equine anatomy, he is generally thought to have taken a scientific or biological view of animals and their behavior. His patrons certainly did and often commissioned studies of animals from him for their own scientific analysis. This has led many people today to think of Stubbs as an illustrator helping scientists in their research. Yet, just because Stubbs did not write poetry, does not mean that he was not a poet. He clearly was. Take the Green Monkey, the title of which even refers to the traditional color of poetic fertility (see below). 

Two versions of The Green Monkey exist, the earliest of which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1775. It remained with Stubbs throughout his life. Neither version can be definitively linked with any scientific project or patron. Yet, given that Stubbs planned to write a book on animal anatomy in his later years, some experts think that the second version may be linked to that. Fat chance. The monkey is a painter.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Stubbs, Green Monkey (1799)

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See how the monkey extends its arms towards what might be an easel while looking at us as though painting a self-portrait. If you compare the monkey's pose to Stubb's own self-portrait (right), the similarity is obvious. The monkey has previously been described as “almost anthropomorphic” without the recognition of it as an alter ego of Stubbs.1

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Stubbs, Green Monkey (1799)

Right: Stubbs, Self-Portrait (1781)

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The idea that artists "ape" nature was so common at the time that Goya in Spain drew an image of a monkey-painter the year before Stubbs' second version (right). The failure to recognize Stubbs in the monkey  demonstrates that only a self-evident allegory like Goya's is certain to be recognized as such; Stubbs' more subtle version is taken for "scientific illustration".

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Stubbs, Green Monkey (1799)

Right: Goya, You will not die of hunger (1798)

Click image to enlarge.

The pose of Stubbs' monkey and its wide-eyed observation of himself in a mirror suggests that the painting itself is the mirror and thus the artist's mind, a visual metaphor Manet also used in Olympia. As for the title which misidentifies the species, its origin is unknown. If Stubbs mistakenly thought the animal was a Green Monkey or called it that regardless, his choice is meaningful since green is the traditional color in art for artistic fertility and is closely associated with painters. (Veronese, for instance, cloaked himself in green in Feast in the House of Levi.)2

The discovery that Stubbs imagined himself as the monkey also means that all Stubbs' art should be re-examined. I plan to reveal several more surprises in his work in the coming months.

Notes:

1. Walker Art Gallery online catalogue: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/collections/18c/stubbs-monkey.aspx (Dec. 2010)

2. See our blog Van Gogh's Eyes, an entry on his painting Trees and Undergrowth and Judas in Poussin's Ordination

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 17 Dec 2010. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.